Lines deepen in debate on Gorge casino


News staff writer

August 12, 2006

The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs contend that opponents of a Gorge casino are using "deception and gridlock" to achieve their objective.

"We're trying to play fair and be transparent with Oregonians. We welcome a conversation on the merits of our project but Friends of the Columbia Gorge seems to be more interested in setting up litigation," said Len Bergstein, tribal spokesperson.

The tribe is currently studying the financial returns of building a casino somewhere on the 640,000 acres of reservation land in Central Oregon. That analysis was mandated in July by James E. Cason, associate deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Last year, the Warm Springs asked for federal review of plans to build a two-story casino with a footprint of about 250,000 square feet on 25 acres within the urban center of Cascade Locks. Another 35 acres would be leased from the Port of Cascade Locks for a parking lot. If that proposal was denied, they stated the intent to site a gambling facility on 40 acres of eligible land within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area just east of Hood River.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski and virtually all local governments in the Mid-Columbia have signed on to support the Cascade Locks' alternative.

Michael Lang, Friends' conservation director, said the directive by Cason indicates the tribe has failed to meet environmental standards and has "significant problems" with both Gorge locations.

"What they've told the tribe to do is go back to the start and re-write a cornerstone of the whole proposal," he said. "This administration does not favor off-reservation casinos."

Bergstein said tribal officials were told that the study of a viable site on the reservation was precautionary. He said government leaders wanted to cover all of the bases in case Friends' carried through on its threats of litigation when a decision was made.

Lang said a lawsuit is likely if the tribe proceeds with any study of reservation property before the Bureau of Indian Affairs has re-drafted the "purpose and needs" statement to lay out the criteria for justifying the project. Or if the Warm Springs picks a location that is intended to paint a more negative picture of need.

"We are an impoverished tribe and nothing is going to change about that in the purpose and needs statement," said Bergstein.

Meanwhile, Friends issued results of a poll this week that they said reveals that 68 percent of Oregonians surveyed are opposed to placing a casino in the Gorge. The statewide poll was conducted the week of July 17 by Mercury Public Affairs, a bipartisan polling service. There were 400 respondents. Lang said Friends participated in the joint poll with several other conservation groups on a wide range of environmental issues.

Bergstein called the poll "disingenuous," citing one of the questions: "If you knew that the following statement was true, would you be much more likely, somewhat more likely, somewhat less likely or much less likely to favor allowing the Warm Springs Indian Tribe to build a 603,000 square foot casino off reservation lands near the Columbia River Gorge community of Cascade Locks?

Below that question is the following statement, "The proposed Columbia River Gorge casino would draw an estimated three million visitors and increase traffic and air pollution - putting the Gorge's bald eagle nests and salmon runs in danger."

Lang said Bergstein is just trying to "put a happy face" on the fact that the Bush administration is unlikely to approve an off-reservation casino. He said the Grand Ronde has offered to help finance a casino on the reservation - and the Warm Springs should take that offer.

"Why doesn't the tribe look at the handwriting on the wall?" he asked.

“Why doesn’t Friends let us determine the merits of this plan?” asked Bergstein.

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